Upton Sinclair
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Radium Age SF, Utopia

In 1906, UPTON SINCLAIR (1878-1968) published The Jungle, a bestselling fictional exposé that used Chicago’s meatpacking industry as a stage upon which to dramatize the suffering visited upon laborers by unregulated capitalism. Though Congress swiftly passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, Sinclair’s twenty-fourth novel had zero effect upon its intended target. (“So long as we have wage slavery,” laments one character, “it matters not in the least how debasing and repulsive a task may be, it is easy to find people to perform it.”) Sinclair, who griped that “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” used his new wealth to establish a utopian colony (Helicon) in Englewood, N.J, before going on to churn out sixty-five more titles in various genres. It must be acknowledged that Sinclair was a mediocre novelist. We’ve included him in our pantheon because he participated in two Argonaut Follies: Helicon, which soon burned down; and the Forte Circle (1910-15), an international cabal of activist intellectuals — including Martin Buber and Gustav Landauer — who attempted to prevent WWI. However, certain of his books are worth the effort: The Brass Check (1919), a still-pertinent criticism of “objective” journalism; The Millennium (1924), a Radium Age sci-fi play; Oil! (1927), the novel on which Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was loosely based; and Boston (1928), a “documentary novel” about Sacco and Vanzetti. Co-Op (1936), a “novel of living together,” also sounds promising.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jay Ward and Stevie Smith.

READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut generation (1874-83).


In 2012–2013, HiLoBooks serialized and republished (in gorgeous paperback editions, with new Introductions) 10 forgotten Radium Age science fiction classics! For more info: HiLoBooks.

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Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based semiotic culture and brand analyst. He is editor/publisher of HILOBROW and the Radium Age science fiction imprint HILOBOOKS. In addition, Josh is co-author of several books, including (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) the family activities guides UNBORED, UNBORED GAMES, and the forthcoming UNBORED ADVENTURE. In the ’00s, Josh was an editor and columnist for the BOSTON GLOBE's IDEAS section; in the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT.